As with so many things in life, if you want to be a chef, first you’ve got to master the basics. And for seventeen year-old Jo Jo Baez— that means how to handle hot dogs.
Her instructor demonstrates how to move hot dogs from the grill to a warming pan. Technique matters - and seconds count - here in a commercial kitchen in the basement of Boston’s Trinity Church. In an hour, dozens of hungry campers will descend into the dining area.
Jo Jo who will be a Junior at Boston’s Madison Park High is getting on the job experience this summer working as a camp cook … it’s part of a program called Future Chefs.
Founder Toni Elka agreed to meet us here. She got her start working in kitchens. And she wants teens to learn a set of skills that will not only help them land a job… but excel at it.
“The culinary industry is easy to get into but it can be a dead end,” says Elka. “But if you get into it with a professional mindset and you use it as a first career opportunity, you can learn all the transferable skills that will take you to the next thing when you wake up to how great you are.”
Future Chefs works with about eighty teens in and around Boston. They show up for after school cooking classes… seminars with big name chefs … and something Jo Jo finds especially valuable – time with Toni.
“She’s always saying to me okay how’s school, how’s stuff at home, how’s everything .. so it’s actually good having extra people other than your mom and dad saying ‘okay, you gotta get your stuff done…” says Jo Jo.
The kitchen is Toni’s proverbial village to keeps kids from slipping through the cracks, as she did as a poor kid from Connecticut who eventually hitchhiked her way to Boston.
”I want the young people to feel like they’re being held in that really difficult time where all the structure of school falls away. You don’t have a plan, everybody else is moving ahead, you’re not going anywhere—that’s what happened to me. I don’t want that to happen to other kids.”
It took until she was thirty-five, but Toni did eventually earn a degree … from the Mass College of Art. She built a career in nonprofits, but she still sees the world and the teens she works with through the eyes of an artist.
“It’s like making a painting,” Elka says. “Cooking is our oil paint or our water colors. The cooking skills are going to enable them to learn all the other skills which are really important for them. Personal integrity, being responsible to other people on the team , getting things done on time with a sense of urgency.”
The young chefs have met their deadline … they’re serving the hungry campers chili, salad and homemade carrot cake. Jo Jo is handing out the hot dogs. One day she hopes to own a restaurant.
In the eight years since she founded Future Chefs, Toni has watched graduates go on to some of Boston’s best restaurants. But a culinary career is not necessarily the goal. Other students are pursuing interests as diverse as real estate and nursing.
After all, once you learn to handle the heat in the kitchen … you’re ready for all kinds of challenges.
Elka says “our main thing we teach kids is be willing to be uncomfortable. Believe that you can figure out what you have to figure out.”
It’s Toni’s own recipe for success.